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Commentary: Watching the bluegrass grow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2011 - With the band all tuned up and ready to go, I stepped up to the microphone one night last summer. It was my first paying gig since beginning to pluck out the guitar chords to "Blowin' in the Wind" 45 years ago. The lateness of the bloom on my professional music career was less amazing than the fact that it happened at all.

In the two decades since I ended my stint as director-guitar-player of the parish choir, my musical skills had pretty much been gathering dust, except for the occasional family gathering sing-along. Like a lot of people, I had been caught in the ripples of the '60s folk revival. Bob Dylan soon led me to Woody Guthrie, the Lomax recordings and on to "roots music" of Scotch-Irish immigrants and of African slaves.

I would never have moved beyond my rudimentary hootenanny skill set had it not been for a serendipitous encounter with some students from the Folk School of St. Louis. My wife came home from work one day suggesting we go to the Schlafly Tap Room for a birthday party for the husband of one of her coworkers - oh, and by the way, he takes folk music classes, and there was going to be a student showcase. Now, I had hoped I was through with recitals when the kids went off to college, but at least this one would have beer.

Not surprisingly, the beer was good, but so was the music. The friend's husband was in a bluegrass ensemble class that included fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bass and guitar, and the students ranged from pretty young to fairly old. They sounded good, and they seemed to be having a whole lot of fun.

Maybe it was the fact that I had recently observed one of those mind-bending "decade birthdays," or maybe it was just another instance of the old saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." But I took the plunge and signed up for a class.

How hard could it be? A typical bluegrass song has only three chords. But the very first class brought me face to face with the accumulated bad habits of years of playing alone: Not keeping a rein on the tempo and glossing over mistakes being chief among them. In the often fast-paced bluegrass world, the skill of the other players was vastly superior to mine, especially when it came to playing solo leads. It was a lot like trying to keep up with a quickly moving musical jigsaw puzzle.

I might have been discouraged enough to quit right there but for the fact that it was really, really fun. The teacher was Dave Mueller, the gifted mandolin player and singer with local band The Mississippi Sawyers, and he had the knack of demanding accuracy while maintaining the fun. Himself a student of the bluegrass tradition, Mueller would say, "Play it like you mean it," and then show us how to do it.

I began to appreciate the subtleties of this mentally and physically engaging music. Most audiences would be at least familiar with bluegrass via the theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies" by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and the more recent soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" featuring several contemporary artists. Sometimes called "hillbilly jazz," bluegrass is known for its inventive improvisation within an idiomatic structure.

In many ways, it was like learning a new language, and gradually the effort I was putting into it began to pay off. I have been able to rely on my vocal ability. I'm no Hank Williams, but I can hit the right notes and remember lyrics; and among bluegrass players, that will hold you in good stead.

Now I'm starting gigs when I ordinarily would begin thinking about going to bed. But the adrenalin rush of playing with a group in front of an audience is always a kick. In the corner of your eye you catch people tapping their feet to the rhythm or little kids either staring bewildered or dancing and spinning around in front of you.

Playing in public is great not so much for the money - "you can make tens of dollars playing this music" is an often heard saying - but for the way it fuels practices and drives us toward perfection. There's nothing quite like working out the kinks in a song and feeling it come together. Like a basketball team, we learn each other's moves, play to each other's strengths and share the accomplishments. Letting loose in front of an audience, with all the risks and surprises of live music, is just icing on the cake.

I know I'll never play like Ricky Skaggs or Alison Krauss or even the many fine bluegrass musicians right here in St. Louis. I just don't have the physical skills or the years left to acquire them. But I can get better, and I can have fun: Two pretty good options, and not just for bluegrass music.

Mark Neilsen plays with River Bound and is a freelance writer.

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